Ah the 1980’s! The era of big hair, happy non-threatening metal bands, tight jeans, and satanic panic! Back in the 1980’s I can still remember the panic over anything that seemed satanic. whether it be music, movies, or people the parents were all over it like white on rice. Even in my home town we had the usual rumors that every small town no doubt had about satanic cults that met under bridges, in cemeteries, or in the darkness of the woods. Looking back on it now 20 years later it seems really surreal that we actually worried about that kind of thing. The Satanic panic fizzled out in the 90’s and is pretty much dead today. For all the rumors and speculation there was little to no proof that such practices in worship of the devil ever occurred anywhere. Nor that anyone was ever hurt or killed because of it. Its in this world that Ti West (The Roost, Trigger Man) has set his latest film, House of the Devil. A film that captures the look and feel of every satanic panic film from the period so well that you’d be excused if you thought it was a long lost gem from the 80’s!
Ti West’s latest independent film ‘The House of the Devil takes us back to the early 1980s and the height of the satanic panic that gripped communities all over the country. It’s the early 80’s and Samantha, played by Jocelin Donahue, is a college student looking for a new place to live off campus. She finds the perfect house but has to come up with the $300 to move in before the following Monday. Luckily a babysitter position out in the middle of nowhere turns up on a campus bulletin board. Samantha’s friend Megan (Greta Gerwig), worried that she might be walking into a horror movie, offers to drive Samantha to the house and make sure its ok before leaving. Of course everything is far from ok. Upon arriving to the Victorian home, Mr. Ulman, played by the always creepy Tom Noonan, explains that the job isn’t babysitting a child but rather a invalid woman who’s bed bound and hardly a bother. Samantha’s reluctant to stay but is eventually won over by the offer of $400 for one nights work. Megan tries to talk Samantha into leaving but she refuses. Mr. Ulman and his wife leave for the evening and then strange things begin to happen.
Ti West’s films have always been an acquired taste. Films like the Roost and Trigger Man have been throwbacks to previous decades of cinema and they burn slowly. House of the Devil is no different. Samantha spends much of the films running time creeping around the house and discovering bits and pieces of the mystery to keep things moving. Do the Ulmans really live in this house? Are they who they say they are? How does the lunar eclipse play into the evenings events? All these questions are eventually answered but only after a slow build up. The events of the night manage to pull you to the edge of your seat ever so slowly as the dread mounts. But, younger horror fans may find that the films finale doesn’t quite match with the level of build up and it feels like a bit of a letdown.
One could argue that that House of the Devils conclusion is true to many of the Satanic Panic flicks of the 70’s and 80’s and I tend to agree. I grew up watching these kinds of films and rarely did they end any bigger or explain things as well as House of the Devil. The film works because of the setting. Even though it takes place in the early 1980’s it doesn’t dwell on the time period trying to make a statement or poke fun at it. Instead it just happens to be a story that takes place in that time period. Everything from the performances, the wardrobe and even the credits of the film will make you feel like you watching a lost film from the 1980’s. I’m convinced if you saw this without knowing what it was on TV one night you would assume it was made in 1983.
In Jocelin Donahue, West has the perfect 1980s heroine. She’s equal parts Margot Kidder and Karen Allen. Her portrayal of Samantha and her journey is what the whole film is built upon and with a lesser actress House of The Devil could have been a disaster.
Unfortunately I doubt most modern horror fans would get what the movie is even about and likely would find it boring since its not filled with smash cut editing. For fans of grindhouse cinema, devil films, or those who just those who would enjoy a flashback, House of the Devil is a great trip down memory lane.